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University to present progress update on UC Commission on the Future

By Emily Liu

Jan. 20, 2015 12:39 p.m.

University administrators will be presenting the first progress update in five years of the UC Commission on the Future’s recommendations Wednesday at the University of California Board of Regents meeting.

Co-chaired by then-UC Board of Regents chairman Russell Gould and then-UC President Mark Yudof, the UC Commission on the Future was formed in July 2009 to evaluate how the University’s operations can address the long-term challenges of decreasing state funding and rising costs, without compromising quality of education.

The commission, made up of five working groups which looked into the University’s size and shape, education and curriculum, access and affordability, funding strategies and research strategies, released a final report with 20 recommendations for the University in November 2010.

“Our core principle was that we have a university of high quality that should be accessible and affordable to students born here in the state of California,” said Henry Powell, who was chair of the University-wide Academic Senate during the time of the commission.

Prompted by the recent recession that led to a cut in state funding of the University, faculty across the UC proposed a major review of the University’s policies as funding shortfalls threatened the University’s affordability and accessibility, Powell said.

“We felt that the University as a whole needed to brainstorm – the economy was collapsing, the pension plan was underwater for the first time, the crisis was even worse than most people realized and the new president Yudof had just come aboard and had to deal with this enormous crisis,” Powell said.

Much of the commission’s focus was on identifying educational priorities the University should maintain despite the crisis, such as the UC’s obligation to enroll all residents who qualified under the California Master Plan for Higher Education, Powell said.

“We took a good look at ourselves and we realized that we had been cutting budgets since the early 1990s, but there comes a point where you need a certain irreducible minimum investment to make the whole thing work,” he said.

In 2011-2012, the year after the commission’s report was released, the UC received $750 million in state funding cuts, the steepest since the recession.

Nina Robinson, current associate president of the University and chief of staff under Yudof, said she thinks the commission helped the University pull through the worst of the economic crisis.

Under the Working Smarter initiative supported by the commission, the University saved about $660 million in administrative inefficiencies, addressing one-third of the cut in state funding in the process, Robinson said.

“The biggest budget cut came right after our report was released, and the commission’s work really attuned us to respond well to the crisis,” Robinson said. “We would be in much worse shape today if not for the commission.”

Not all of the commission’s recommendations, however, have been implemented successfully, in part due to continued funding constraints.

The University’s efforts to shorten degree completion time and to increase transfer enrollment, for example, were stalled by continued post-recession state funding shortfalls, according to the regents’ meeting agenda.

“Many campuses have been forced, as a result of persistent underfunding, to move in this direction – slowing the replacement of ladder-rank faculty and reducing the number of lecturers and teaching assistants, even as undergraduate enrollments and demand from potential students continue to increase,” according to the update.

Robert Samuels, president of the University Council – American Federation of Teachers union, said he thinks the commission’s ideas lacked specificity and have been unsuccessfully implemented. Samuels had headed an Alternative Commission on the Future group that opposed the commission’s recommendations back in 2010.

The University’s pilot program for online courses, for example, which had gained momentum after the commission’s recommendation, initially failed to attract investors and had to be funded by a $6.9 million loan from the UC Office of the President.

Samuels said he thinks that though the number of online course offerings has increased, it is nowhere near what was proposed by the administration.

“People tend to think of online as a cost-saving or revenue-raising strategy, but that hasn’t been our experience so far,” Robinson said. “It’s very expensive to develop, we still need TAs and faculty interaction takes time.”

The change of state and University leadership in the past few years has also muted the impact of the commission’s recommendations, said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA and a member of the commission’s working group on access and affordability.

“Even when we laid out plans, we got a new governor and president who wanted to make their mark with their own ideas,” Hurtado said.

Despite the continuing budget challenges, Hurtado said she remains optimistic about the University’s future.

“We are just getting to a point where we can think about the future and do some spending in areas that we have not been able to do,” Hurtado said.

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